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Fort Lauderdale: City, Nimby's limit tower plans

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Posted on Thu, Apr. 01, 2004

Developer keeps faith in tower

Developer Philip Long is still working on making his Las Olas Tower condo project a reality -- albeit a much shorter one.

BY PATRICK DANNER

[email protected]

Back when downtown Fort Lauderdale's only major riverfront abode was the Broward County Jail, developer Philip Long envisioned building a 45-story condo tower along the New River.

Twelve years later, Long continues to chase his dream of erecting Las Olas Tower. In the meantime, one residential project has been built and five are under construction along the river.

Las Olas Tower has gotten considerably shorter with time, in an effort to win city approval. It was scaled back to 32 stories, then chopped to 23 stories, before being trimmed to its current 20 stories. That's more than half the size of what will be downtown's tallest building, the 42-story Las Olas Riverhouse, a condo project now under construction.

Whether the latest version of Las Olas Tower appeases the city has yet to be determined, but it clearly doesn't satisfy the land owner that agreed to sell Long's Las Olas Tower Co. the nearly one-acre site in 1992.

The Las Olas Riverside Hotel Co. in February terminated Las Olas Tower Co.'s right to purchase the property next to the landmark hotel. Riverside Chairman James Ulmer objected to the project's reduced height and the increased width in a February letter terminating the agreement. The purchase price on the land was set at nearly $8.3 million.

Las Olas Tower Co. responded last week by suing Riverside in Broward Circuit Court, alleging breach of contract. ''We have an enforceable purchase agreement,'' Long said. Ulmer declined to comment.

The dispute is just the latest cloud over the one-time skyscraper project. On March 12, Aventura developer Turnberry Associates sued to recover a $200,000 deposit it paid Las Olas Tower Co. for the rights to buy the land. That deal collapsed in September.

Long remains steadfast that the project eventually will see the light of day. He said he has teamed up with another developer he declined to name.

''Am I going to build it? You bet I am,'' he said.

The litigation with Riverside has put a halt to court-ordered mediation with the city over the height of Las Olas Tower, however. The mediation stems from a 1995 lawsuit that Las Olas Tower filed after the city denied the original 45-story project because of its height.

''Until they get the litigation over with, we're not going to go forward in the mediation,'' said Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Harry Stewart.

Nevertheless, Long said there is a ''framework for a settlement'' with the city that allows for a 20-story project.

''No one is happy with the compromise,'' Long conceded. ``We'd like more stories. They'd like less.''

Las Olas Tower Co. is one of three development companies that have been mired in legal disputes with the city over projects proposed in the downtown area south of Broward Boulevard. The others are South Riverwalk Investments and Coolidge-South Markets Equities, which is affiliated with Miami's The Related Group of Florida.

The disputes led the city to place a freeze on all of the 763 residential units that were allocated to the area south of Broward Boulevard when the cap on the number of units permitted to be built in downtown was increased by almost 3,000 in November. The city wants to ensure the units are available in the event it loses any of the disputes, Stewart said.

The city has set aside 90 units for Las Olas Tower, 398 units for South Riverwalk and 312 units for Coolidge.

South Riverwalk sued the city in 2002 alleging that its project on the south side of the New River along Andrews Avenue was put on the ''back burner'' during the approval process, principal Greg Jackson said. The city eventually ran out of units to award, preventing South Riverwalk from proceeding. The case is now before the Fourth District Court of Appeal, but Jackson said it is moving toward a resolution. He has proposed building two 32-story buildings with condos and shops.

Coolidge and the city are headed to trial in August. Coolidge sought to build a 38-story project on the site of the old Hyde Park Market at 500 E. Las Olas Blvd. The city, though, tried to condemn the property to create a park.

The condemnation proceedings were thrown out by a Broward Circuit judge two years ago.

Coolidge, though, sued for damages related to delays caused by the condemnation. Coolidge still wants to build the project, said Toby Brigham, the developer's Miami lawyer.

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Posted on Thu, Apr. 01, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE

Cautious city reins in builders

Legal disputes have led Fort Lauderdale to stop accepting new residential development proposals for south of Broward Boulevard.

BY PATRICK DANNER

[email protected]

Developers wanting to partake in downtown Fort Lauderdale's residential-construction boom are stuck in a holding pattern.

Even though the number of residential units that can be built in downtown was increased by almost 3,000 in November, the city isn't releasing any of the 763 units that were allocated to the area south of Broward Boulevard. The other 2,197 units were reserved for the area north of the thoroughfare.

The city said it needs the 763 units in case it loses legal battles with developers who have been trying for years to get approvals to build.

That leaves other developers in a familiar predicament: unable to build. Until the city increased the cap on residential units by more than 50 percent in November, developers planning any large apartment or condo projects were thwarted because virtually all of the 5,100 units allowed to be built were spoken for. The end to the moratorium on new projects was short-lived, at least in the area south of Broward Boulevard.

''We can't go any further with our plans,'' lamented Hector Torres, project director for Aventura-based Cabi Developers, which wants to build a mixed-used project with 209 condo units, office condos and shops at the site of the former Sun Power Diesel marina on Southwest Third Avenue along the New River. ``Unfortunately, we're stymied -- and frustrated. We would have liked to have been selling the project and commencing construction.''

Cabi isn't alone. Summit Properties, which is nearing completion of its 420-unit apartment project at the northwest corner of Federal Highway and Southwest Second Street, can't proceed with its second phase, according to Donald Hall, Summit's Fort Lauderdale lawyer.

And land owner C. Craig Edewaard said there's a good chance a deal he has to sell a nearly two-acre parcel in downtown will fall through because the buyer can't obtain city approvals to build. The land is at the northwest corner of Andrews Avenue and Southwest Sixth Street.

''We've had to turn people away,'' said Bruce Chatterton, Fort Lauderdale's planning and zoning services manager. ``We have to tell them we don't have units available and they cannot apply for units. So we can't even talk about the merits of their design.''

The dearth of units south of Broward Boulevard has revived talk of allowing for more residential development in downtown.

A Downtown Master Plan approved by the city commission in November envisions anywhere from 28,000 to 37,000 residents eventually living in downtown. About 7,300 people lived in the downtown as of the 2000 census.

Assuming two people living in each unit, that means the downtown could ultimately accommodate 14,000 to 18,500 units under the Master Plan. Building the maximum number would more than double the current cap on residential development.

The Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority is coordinating efforts to implement parts of the city's Downtown Master Plan, including the residential component.

''I think we're interested in seeing the downtown move forward in a positive direction,'' said Chris Wren, the DDA's executive director. ``In that context, we're looking for the master plan to guide us.''

Any increase in the number of units likely would be done in phases to ensure that the growth is measured, Wren said. ''We know people are concerned about unbridled development,'' he said.

Adding residential units, though, would help Fort Lauderdale achieve its goal of a ''24/7'' downtown where people live and work. More residents will lead to more shops. More shops will create more foot traffic and less vehicle traffic, Wren said.

Chatterton agreed: ``Downtown is a place that's designed for intensive development.''

But Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle wants congestion on city streets addressed before increasing the density in downtown.

''We have about 5,000 units coming on line now,'' Naugle said. ``I think the public would like to see how those units are being absorbed . . . before we approve a massive number of new units.''

Increasing the number of units would require an amendment to the city land-use plan, a change that would need approvals from a handful of government bodies. They include the Broward County Commission, the South Florida Regional Planning Council and the state's Department of Community Affairs.

Chatterton estimated that amending the land-use plan could take up to two years to complete, a long time for developers itching to build. The city could do what it did last year when 2,960 units were added to the downtown pool. Those units were redistributed from neighborhoods surrounding the downtown, but repeating that process would take at least a year, he estimated.

The city placed a hold on the 763 units reserved for south of Broward Boulevard because of disputes with three developers seeking to build in the area:

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In retrospect, maybe it was too tall.

I actually respect Nimbys in a way. I couldn't imagine a world without them, nor could I imagine a world of just them either. Hopefully this will cause the developers to be more creative in their designs and put more pressure from both sides on the city to develop and stick to a more progressive and comprehensive plan.

There's plenty of places in Dade where nimbys have no sway at all. If you want to build tall, go to downtown or Aventura. Ft. Lauderdale has a beautiful downtown, I don't blame them, whether right or wrong in this case, for trying to keep it that way.

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